Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Are You Writing?

by J. Lea Lopez

Recently I held a contest on my personal blog where I challenged participants to write a very short story that was sexy, but where no one got naked. I thought it would be a fun way to entice people to try writing something erotic without the embarrassment of actually having to write a sex scene, and also a good way to encourage some outside-the-box thinking by taking the “sex” out of sexy writing.

So why am I telling you this, especially since I already named a winner? Because it told me something about some of my fellow aspiring writers. I was surprised—shocked, even—by the number of people who scoffed at the idea of entering because I’ve never read/written erotica. That’s not my genre. Or I’m no good at those kinds of scenes. I can’t do that. And then the handful of entries I did get were mostly prefaced with statements like I’m sorry if it sucks and I know I won’t win. Does no one have confidence anymore? Or even a good sense of just for the hell of it fun?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having realistic expectations and being able to honestly assess our own talent. The last thing I want is for any of my writing friends to suffer from the same delusions that cause some people (you know which ones) to audition for American Idol and then throw a hissy when everyone laughs. But don’t you want to challenge yourself, ever? Don’t you want to branch out and try something completely different, if only for 1200 words that only a handful of people will ever read? (My blog isn’t the most highly-trafficked corner of the Web. It’s not like I asked anyone to submit their writing to the New Yorker.)

All career considerations and aspirations for wealth or fame aside—why are you writing? If not to stretch the limits—of the imagination, of a genre, of your own talent—then why?

One of my favorite and best English professors in college told our Creative Writing class that we should always be pushing the envelope. Always. He told us to write what we love and want to write, but push the envelope. That’s stuck with me over the years, and I think it’s something we should all be doing. Write a formulaic bodice-ripper for Harlequin if that’s what you want to do, but for goodness sake, push that envelope! Write the best damn bodice-ripper we’ve ever seen.

We always have an eye toward marketability and the like, because we do want to make a living at this writing gig. I’m not suggesting you expect your literary YA space opera about werewolves and vamps forming an alliance against the aliens from galaxy XSr429-6 to be an easy sell. But don’t just regurgitate the same stuff that’s been circulating for years, either. Oh, hell, you know what? If that literary YA space opera is what you are just aching to write – do it! Write the best damn literary YA space opera you can, and then strip it down and do it again. Learn the shortcomings of the genres you choose, and the weaknesses in your own ability, then fix them. Find ways to exploit your strengths. Write something in a genre or viewpoint you’re uncomfortable with, to see how it feels. Find what you can learn from the experience, trash the rest, and move on. But do it. Stop sabotaging yourself from the word go by filling your head with negative talk and doubt and do it.

Challenge yourself. Challenge your audience. Strive for the growth that comes from pushing the envelope.

Otherwise, why are you writing at all?


cherie said...

I had to respond to this since I'm guilty as charged of the above comments. In my defense, since I wasn't familiar with the genre, I felt the need to apologize (I know, I know). I am CONFIDENT in the genre I write because I've studied it, read it, wrote it, and immersed myself in it. It's my comfort zone. And while I am in my comfort zone, I do try to push the limits of the genre...all the while still comfortable because I know what I'm doing.

Now, let's say you ask me to write historical fiction. I will most likely apologize and politely decline. Why? It's not because I'm cowardly and I don't want to challenge myself--it's because I don't read historical fiction since I don't have a love for it. And writing it would be a chore. Maybe if I was put under threat of my life, then yes, I would definitely write it ;D

I've explored other genres (horror, middle grade, contemporary adult fic) and didn't so much as bat an eyelash. The reason why your contest garnered so many apologies is because of the genre itself. Erotica is not everyone's preferred game, and some--just by looking at the name alone--will shrink from it because they're not sure what exactly it entails. There's a lot of misconceptions, and that's not your fault, btw. It's just the way it is. And the honest, real truth is that erotica will always be viewed that way. Sex is, after all, an intimate subject.

So in my humble opinion, it wasn't so much as a lack of confidence in one's self as a writer, but a lack of confidence from being thrown in the unfamiliar waters of erotica writing. Which is okay--we are only human.

It's great to always challenge yourself, but it's also wise to know your limits and weaknesses.

I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity to try it out, but I'm pretty sure I won't be writing an erotica novel anytime soon or in the future. It's just not my thing. ;)

Tracey Wood said...

It's hard to write anything on a blog! That's why so few people leave comments. You always worry about proving you're a twit. My blog's making me a nervous wreck. I do it but ALWAYS worry. Not so much about being boring, as I hear a lot of folks say, but about swearing and going too far! :). Also, some of those American Idol contestants are clearly off their rockers to start with and should never have been allowed up there for public humiliation. Who wants the literary equivalent? Just sayin. :)

Sophie Perinot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sophie Perinot said...

I DO believe that stretching yourself as a writer is important. BUT I also believe that FOCUS and TIME MANAGEMENT are equally important. For me that means using my available writing time to write my next novel. I don’t enter contests. I don’t pursue an idea that pops into my head because it might be fun (though I take notes on that idea in case I can use it later). I write what my agent expects to see next—exclusively—until it is done. Only exception, blogging, because I’ve made a commitment to that and it gives me an outlet for a different type of writing.

So I guess I would just say be careful of labeling people as lacking confidence just because they are not writing all over the place. Some folks just put a premium on nose-to-the-grindstone single focus. I am one of them

Matt Sinclair said...

I wanted to push that envelope across the floor without getting naked, but I ended up not having enough time. Plus I was constantly naked. Go figure!

LD Masterson said...

Oh, it wasn't the lack of confidence or not enjoying trying something new - it was just time. I ran out.

J. Lea Lopez said...

For someone who hopes to eventually make writing a career, I apparently have a disturbing knack for not clearly stating my point haha.

The point was not to complain about people not entering my contest. Aside from the apologetic attitudes in part inspiring this post, it really has nothing to do with the contest. And I certainly am not proposing that anyone take legitimate writing time away from what they're working on to write a novel in another genre "just because".

Sophie, you are at the complete opposite end of who I intended this post for :-) You have the experience, practice, and talent down already. You have your genre that you love to write, you have an agent, and you have a book deal. You're obviously doing a few things right, and I don't think I've ever witnessed the words "I suck" or anything close come from you. But I also have faith that even if you don't read, write, or have any interest in erotica, if a project you're working on calls for some especially steamy scenes that are important to the plot and characterization, you'll write those scenes, and not close the door simply because you're uncomfortable with the idea. (And it doesn't have to be erotica or sex here, it could be anything outside your "norm")

I intended this post for people who are more on my level in the publishing game - people who currently have more aspiration than experience, who are still finding their voice, their niche, discovering where their talents and their passions lie. I've seen the I suck. My writing sucks. This story isn't any good. and the I can't do that. attitudes from these such writers on several occasions, the most recent of which was in response to my call for contest entries.

My point is this: We should always be pushing that envelope. Testing the boundaries of our own comfort and talent levels, and why the hell not test some commonly accepted tenets of our chosen genre while we're at it? It could be as simple as taking a scene from your WIP and looking at it from another character's perspective. If it doesn't work, you toss it, but maybe you learned something from it. It could be as elaborate as a series of writing prompts from a book.

When you bump up against an obstacle, negative self-talk is pointless. If you keep saying you're no good, you'll never be any good. Just like anything else in life, I think writers need to face these things head on. Hell, it's safer to confront your fears and test your talent when it comes to writing, because there are none of the potential consequences of facing real-life fears. No one's gonna die (unless you kill off a character).

Maybe I should've titled this post "Don't Tell Me You Suck" :-)

Sophie Perinot said...

Totally agree that we all have to push ourselves, even if we stay in one genre. Sometimes we have to push ourselves just to write on a day where even the laundry looks more exciting :)

KellieM said...


I totally got your point in this blog. Here's the thing for me. Not only do I desire positive feedback for my writing (who doesn't?), I require it in order to believe that it's good. (I blame being raised in a perfectionist household and not being perfect) I know I should be happy that I've written my story and revel in the success of a completed mss. A lot of people that I consider talented have been complimentary of my writing. Which is really nice and I appreciate it. However, the perfectionist in me wants an agent and a publisher to say that "it's worthy". Then I'll believe it. Until then, I write because I enjoy it.

Oh, and by the way, even though my story was lame in the erotica category, I did enjoy writing it, so thanks for the contest!

J. Lea Lopez said...

Sophie, my laundry almost never looks more appealing than writing haha. Mindless online games, however... guilty as charged!

Kellie, boy oh boy can I sympathize on the want/need for a traditional publishing deal as a way of validating my talent! No matter how often any of us may complain that some published stuff is still crap, I still believe in the value of the gatekeeper, so to speak.

For anyone who missed out on my contest, no worries, I'll do another some time soon! And thanks to Cherie, I know that all I have to do is threaten beheading for non-participants in order to get a bigger turnout! ;-)

Jemi Fraser said...

When my confidence drags and my fear creeps in, I'm coming to you for a boost! Even though I'm so tired that blinking is hard work right now, I'm going to work on that scene that's been bugging me... :) Thanks!